Panopticity

[the interior of IBM's Operation Center in Rio De Janeiro. "The new Operations Center in Rio provides the incident commander and responders with a single, unified view of all the information that they require for situational awareness."  Images and caption courtesy of IBM.]

A recent New York Times’ article, “Mission Control Built For Cities“, provides a glimpse into the development of IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio Operations Center is one in a network of such installations in IBM’s Smarter Cities Program.  But as we learn, the project in Rio is different from its predecessors. The project was initially intended to improve information exchange within a single agency or department, such as emergency response to  flash flooding and land slides Today the extent of the project’s data integration is now far more broad and inclusive of urban phenomena, choreographing data from some 30 different agencies.

“We coordinated everything…In our terminology, we call it being the ‘master integrator.’ ”

According to the article, IBM is trying to claim territory in an expanding urban design services market that is expected to reach $57 billion by 2014:

The Rio operations center, which opened at the end of 2010, is part of an effort to gain a toehold in a market with more established players like Cisco Systems…But even for a company like I.B.M., Rio represents a grand challenge. A horizontal city sprawled between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, it is at once a boomtown, a beach town, a paradise, an eyesore, a research center and a construction site. Oil-industry giants like Halliburton and Schlumberger have been rushing to build research centers here to help develop massive oil and gas fields off the coast.”

Rio is expanding and retrofitting its infrastructure in preparation for the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics (also covered by the NYT) and other global events.  Thus it’s nota mystery why IBM’s services have been requested here, nor to wonder how its efforts will collide with Rio’s flux and informal sectors:  “The complex conditions create a kind of hothouse for I.B.M. to expand its local government business. If the company can remake Rio as a smarter city, it can remake anywhere.”

["At the new Rio Operations Center, the incident commander's view provides a summary of everything happening around the city on a video wall, including surveillance cameras, maps, simulations, news updates, resources and information about incidents."]

Rio can be seen as a particular instance of the re-territorialization of South America being pursued through a surge in infrastructural development, like the IIRSA.  As such, IBM’s Operations centers are like corporate pioneers catalyzing that process and staging the ground.  Its architecture, stakeholders, computers and bundles of data conduit are literally defining the urban field through its own taxonomy of urban phenomena and protocols for dealing with them:

I.B.M. incorporated its hardware, software, analytics and research.  It created manuals so that the center’s employees could classify problems into four categories: events, incidents, emergencies and crises. A loud party, for instance, is an event. People beating up each other at a party is an incident. A party that becomes a riot is an emergency. If someone dies in the riot, it’s a crisis. The manuals also lay out step-by-step procedures for how departments should handle pressing situations like floods and rockslides.

I.B.M. also installed a virtual operations platform that acts as a Web-based clearinghouse, integrating information that comes in via phone, radio, e-mail and text message. When city employees log on, they can enter information from, say, an accident scene, or see how many ambulances have been dispatched. They can also analyze historical information to determine, for instance, where car accidents tend to occur. In addition, I.B.M. developed a custom flood forecast system for the city. Mr. Banavar even recommended that the mayor create the position of chief operating officer to oversee the operations center, and the mayor agreed.

We  recently speculated on the agency of what we called the urban field manual.  We divided such manuals into two general categories: those that are generated through normalized means and established public institutions, or what we called ‘the Inside Job’.  These consist largely of the Bureaucratic Retrofit, which leverages the knowledge and authority of public agencies towards improvement in urban conditions through the production of codes and manuals.  The other category, unsolicited edits, was where we spent the bulk of our ink, exploring emergent urban practices happening outside of conventional urban design avenues. Perhaps we gave short thrift to the inside jobs, as our description of them didn’t say much about these operation centers, or much about such government and corporate partnerships, or the still pervasive desire for the agency of centralized urban intelligence, “a smart city in a box“.

[As we recently wrote about data and visualizing water, IBM is revolutionizing meteorology and has a suite of "smart" water projects currently in development.  Above: 'Deep Thunder' can mesh meteorological data with other topographical, municipal, population, or land use data--or any other relevant data set--to make sophisticated predictions about the weather's impacts on the city.]

Rio’s operations center is like a central nervous system grafted into an existing and semi-feral metropolis.  Its surveillance cameras and sets of algorithms frame and discreetly observe the terrain.  Where it materializes – barely visible – it creates peculiar border conditions, a frontier of sorts.  Hybrid spaces emerge between the ordered and the chaordic.  We see peripheral favelas become locations for grids of emergency sirens and police parades.  Urban anomalies and volatile sites become objects of deep and continuous scrutiny.  Edges are blended and distinctions blurred as the observed events become more like the desires of its observers.   Consider Carnival – a cathartic, wild and ritualistic flood of a different sort:

“The biggest challenges for the city are the street performances, which involve about 425 mobile samba bands performing over four weekends at 350 different sites, Mr. Osório said. Several million people attend. With the operations center in place, the city now coordinates planning across 18 different agencies. Together, those departments assign time slots to the street bands and map their routes, as well as plan for security, street cleaning, crowd control and other needs.”

From descriptions such as these one can envision emerging realms of collision space, diaphanous thresholds between what is (and was) and what is being delegated and ‘seen’ into existence in Rio.  If I were a funded anthropologist or a geographer, I would likely be investigating these shifting zones and their odd situations as a particular breed of networked urbanism.  I hope someone is.

This might sound like a stretch, but in reading the Times article I couldn’t help but recall China Miéville’s urban fiction The City and the City.  Within the subtle, convoluted border meandering between the divided cities where its plot unfolds, there are areas of ‘cross hatch’ where one cannot tell which city one is in.  Within the cross hatch is a third space controlled and inhabited by ‘breach’ who watch everything occurring in the interstitial zone.  The adjacent cities are forced to physically ‘unsee’ each other.  Breach itself is unseen yet omniscient, insuring that the two sets of citizens avoid all contact with each other.   The operations center in Rio is similar – powerful and ghostly – but its role is inverted.  Its intention is to find ways to amalgamate disparities and iron-out disruptive folds in the urban field.

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